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The Great Zamperini and me

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If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve probably seen me mention Louis “Louie” Zamperini, the WWII hero and subject of the new movie, “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie. Like millions of other people, I was captivated by Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name, which was released in 2010. Louie, as you may know, was a track runner on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, a bombardier in WWII, spent 47 days on a life raft in the Pacific after his B-24 crashed, was captured by the Japanese, and spent two hellish years in a POW camp enduring hardships that most of us can scarcely imagine. His story has become a mantra of inspiration for people worldwide.

But my experience with Louie is a little different.

In 2012, I was in my ninth year as assistant editor of the Tennessee Cooperator, the membership publication of Tennessee Farmers Cooperative. That January, my boss, Joe Huffine, somehow managed to arrange for Louie, then 95, to speak to a group of Co-op managers at a hotel in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Without having read the book yet, I attended the meeting and watched Louie speak to our group via web cam from his home in Hollywood. Like everyone else in the room, I was transfixed, especially when his son, Luke, added that Louie had broken his leg 18 hours earlier, but insisted in keeping his speaking commitment with a bunch of Tennessee farmers.

A few days after the meeting, the Cooperator staff was having its monthly planning meeting and I jokingly suggested that I fly to California to interview Louie. Editor Allison Morgan looked at me with a straight face and said, “Maybe you should!  Go talk to Joe about it.” Amazingly, Joe supported my idea provided Louie would agree to speak with me. Joe gave me the phone number and I called Luke.

“Do you think your dad would consider speaking with me for an hour or two if I flew out there?” I asked.

“I dunno.  Hey, Dad!  Would you talk to this farmer guy from Tennessee if he came out here?” I heard Luke say.  “Sure!” came a familiar voice from the background.

Two weeks later, I was on a plane to California. It’s funny, but as a former professional musician, I had become somewhat hardened to celebrities. I met a lot of them during my music years and was usually unimpressed, but the idea of sitting down face-to-face with Louie Zamperini had me rattled. Actually, I was terrified. By now, I had read the book carefully and had come away with the same reaction as most: This is the toughest SOB who’s ever lived. I’ve always felt small and very unmanly in the presence of combat veterans, and I’ve interviewed several. Nobody can shake my confidence in myself more than another man who has stared his own mortality in the face, I guess because I’ve never had to do it. (I think every guy who has never experienced combat has wondered internally if he would measure up.) I’ve also worried that I will ask the wrong question or inadvertently open a Pandora’s Box of unwanted memories or feelings.

And now, I would interview a man who was quickly becoming the most famous war veteran alive. After all, by February 26, 2012, “Unbroken” had already spent an amazing 65 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and rumors were swirling about a possible motion picture.

I arrived in Los Angeles late on a Thursday night. My interview was at 9 a.m. the next morning and I barely slept. I poured over my Kindle version of “Unbroken” and wrote down interview questions, something I usually don’t do, until the wee hours.

The next morning, I left the hotel in plenty of time, I thought. I began following my GPS along the highway toward Hollywood (I don’t remember which one) and quickly realized to my horror that there had been recent construction and the guidance was out of date. I may as well have been on the moon. I felt like I was driving erratically, too slowly, and was annoying other drivers as I strained to identify road signs. Finally, I managed to get Luke on my mobile and he guided me onto the correct street. If there was ever a case of The Country Hick Goes to the Big City, this was it.

The road construction ended and my GPS began working, guiding me up into the Hollywood hills and directly toward the iconic sign. On an incredibly narrow street, I crept my way around blind curves, past parked cars, and trash cans waiting to be emptied with several impatient locals tailgating me. Finally, I spotted the welcoming figure of Luke standing in the road to flag me down.

I arrived at the crowning moment of my journalistic career 15 minutes late and a nervous wreck.

Luke smiled and shook my hand warmly. “Come on in,” he said. “Dad’s ready for you.” I carried only my camera bag, notebook, and voice recorder. Inside my camera bag were three “Unbroken” book covers that Joe and a couple of other Co-op executives had insisted I bring to be signed, which was embarrassing. As I said, my own copy was on my Kindle, so I had nothing for him to sign.

We walked into the old but beautiful and quaint home, and there was Louie Zamperini sitting at his dining room table. Around him were dozens of book covers.

“Dad, this is Mr. Johnson from Tennessee,” Luke said. Louie shook my hand with a strong grip.

“I’ve got to sign all these darn covers,” he said.  “I don’t know any of these people and they’re probably just gonna sell them!”

I thought about the three covers in my camera bag and made a mental note not to remove them at any point.

Thus began one of the most memorable 90 minutes of my life. I pulled a rocking chair up close to Louie’s wheelchair (he was still recovering from his broken leg), turned on my voice recorder, and we began chatting. The room warm, sunny, and had an expansive view of downtown Los Angeles, along with the nearby rooftop of Angelina Jolie’s home, but neither Louie nor myself knew this at the time. (Angelina and Louie would later become close friends.) Louie was warm, patient, and answered my questions eloquently. He looked dapper in a freshly pressed white Oxford shirt, khakis, and a USC ball cap.  He also wore dark, wraparound sunglasses because he had undergone cataract surgery the day before and, again, had refused to cancel the interview.

As we talked, I began to have a feeling that I was asking him things that he had answered a thousand times before, so I began veering off of my list. I decided to focus more on his spiritual experiences and his conversion to Christianity, and this seem to bring out more off-the-cuff responses. At another point, I became very sad that Louie still seemed fixated on survival, even now at his age and his level of fame. He talked about the well-stocked earthquake room in his basement and how he kept survival gear in the glovebox of his car in case of a disaster. He was deadly serious about this and it was clear to me that although he seemed well-adjusted on the surface, the ordeals of his distant past still haunted him, and this nearly brought me to tears.

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Me and Louie, 2012.

But most of all, Louie was friendly, funny, and incredibly accommodating to a nobody agricultural writer from Tennessee. I’ve never been more honored in my life. After an hour and a half, Louie apologetically told me he had a doctor’s appointment to get ready for, so grabbed my camera (carefully keeping the book covers out of sight) and snapped a portrait. Luke then took a slightly out-of-focus picture of Louie and I together, we exchanged our goodbyes, and I was soon snaking my way back down that crazy road.

The whole thing was surreal. Sometimes I wonder if I dreamt it.

When Louie died this past summer at 97, I was crushed. Obviously, I knew he didn’t have many years left, but I desperately wanted him to experience the opening of his movie and maybe even be honored onstage at the Academy Awards.

But I guess that wasn’t what he was all about, anyway. If there was anyone who was placed on this Earth for a specific reason by God Almighty himself, it was Louie Zamperini, and he accomplished his task of inspiration many times over. He deserved a rest and, undoubtably, a place of honor in Heaven.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read my interview — it’s a quick read. I’m also including a YouTube video of the best documentary about Louie that’s ever been made. It was made by CBS for the 1996 Nagano Winter Olympics and it’s fantastic.

Give me your impressions of the documentary and “Unbroken” — both the book and the movie — in the comments section below.

Happy New Year and thanks for following my blog!

 

 

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4 Responses to “The Great Zamperini and me”

  1. Lara says:

    This is fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing. I’m reading the book right now and am eager to see the film. 🙂

  2. Jim O'Brien says:

    Excellent article, Mark. Thanks for sharing it. Thanks, too, for including the CBS documentary. It’s very well done. I envy you the opportunity to meet and talk with a true American hero—and a committed Christian. Requiem in pace, Captain Zamperini!

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